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Al-Qaida flag flies in Baghdad after militants' blasts

BAGHDAD - Militants flew an al-Qaida flag over a Baghdad neighborhood yesterday after killing 16 security officials and burning some of their bodies in a brazen afternoon attack that served as a grim reminder of continued insurgent strength in Iraq's capital.

It was the bloodiest attack in a day that included the deaths of 23 Iraqi soldiers, policemen and other security forces across the country who were targeted by shootings and roadside bombs.

The mayhem serves as a stark warning that insurgents are trying to make a comeback three months after their two top leaders were killed in an airstrike on their safe house, and as the U.S. military presence decreases day by day.

The complex attack began when militants struck a checkpoint in the largely Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah, once a stronghold of insurgents that in recent years has become more peaceful. Then the militants set it on fire, burning several of the soldiers' bodies, according to an army officer who was on patrol in the neighborhood.

Minutes later, attackers detonated three roadside bombs nearby. Hospital, police and military officials all confirmed the death toll.

Police and army officials said between 16 and 20 assailants took part in the highly orchestrated attack; all appeared to have escaped.

A day before the Azamiyah attack, Vice President Joe Biden predicted there would not be an extreme outbreak of sectarian violence in Iraq as all but 50,000 U.S. forces leave the country at the end of August. He said the American troops left behind would be more than enough to help Iraqi forces maintain security.

"I can't guarantee anything, but I'm willing to bet everything that there will be no such explosion," Biden said on NBC's "Today" show. He was speaking from Fort Drum in upstate New York where he and his wife were welcoming troops home.

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